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Notebook: Animated Oscar shorts of 2013 are still packed with feature-length complexity

Disney

By Matt Easton, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 6, 2013

Short films refresh. The compact nature of the stories forces intense focus, yielding a greater appreciation for every frame, every second. And, while larger works may revolve around multiple narratives, themes and characters, the true glory of a short comes from its immersion into pure emotional resonance. But let’s not assume “pure” means “simple” — specifically in the animated category, where oftentimes the style and method of the animation is just as on display as the stories themselves.

And what kind of stories do we want to see? Personally, short films should be little rollercoasters of emotion, with occasional dips into tears and with an ultimate ending that's a soothing, feeling-affirming crescendo. Three of 2013’s Oscar entries do just that in innovative and visually stunning ways.

“Paperman” is love at first sight. A black-and-white melding of hand-drawn and 3-D animation recalls times past while still remaining modern. It tells a heartfelt tale of glances that turn into love; boy meets girl. Sure, nothing new, but who cares? Classic themes are classic for a reason.

The Disney short charms with simplicity. And while its visuals delight the eyes and its plot lifts the heart, it is the score that powers the short toward wonderful heights. Trickling notes carry you alongside the protagonists, and it evokes a magical hope, a belief that dances between the screen and the audience. “Paperman” builds slowly. Every step draws us in, dares us to dream.

Lush water-colored landscapes backdrop the magnificent “Adam and Dog.” The short reimagines Genesis with the addition of Man’s best friend, Dog. The natural world, Paradise, is drawn with an almost Miyazaki-an care. The style moves from a breathing, rich forest to stark deserts with mature ease; and while the backgrounds are usually immobile paintings, the inhabitants are not. Adam lumbers about the forest, a grin plastered on his face, as panthers stalk sleekly and Dog acts … well, like a living dog. Dog playfully leaps through lilies, chases fireflies intermixed with stars (an eye-widening scene) and plays catch.

And, if the visuals don’t steal you, the story will. “Adam and Dog” reaffirms loyalty and love. It shows man’s callousness — and Dog’s forgiveness. “Adam and Dog” is a tear-inducing, thoughtful imagining of Paradise.

“Head Over Heels” is a scintillating stop-motion experiment portraying an old couple with opposite gravitational pulls living under one roof. This is a nice concept, but sadly for many animated films, concept becomes the sole driving motivation for creation. This can be positive when the concept is supported by powerful feeling and characters, or less than great when the concept ends up as a giant “look what I can do!” Thankfully “Head Over Heels” moves past this trick. The true center of the piece is the emotional distance between the old couple — magnified by their contrasting worlds. The concept is used to grow the story, not to substitute it. The sense of bitterness is poignant, but the ending eventually wraps everything up in a realistic and touching manner.

“Fresh Guacamole,” on the other hand, is a concept short that relies too much on its concept. In fact, it really is nothing more. The film shows a pair of hands making guacamole out of familiar objects. While admittedly fun to watch (a Christmas light is a pepper!), this sort of short feels unfulfilling in comparison to the masterworks of “Adam and Dog” and “Paperman.” Still though, it’s engaging, pithy and very creative, so it’s hard not to smile while watching.

By far the worst and most out-of-place short in this year’s entries is “Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare.’ ” Bad because most jokes miss their marks; out-of-place because the ubiquity of “The Simpsons” universe feels too corporate for a short film competition. The short brims with referential humor, which provokes a sort of bemused “Oh, yeah I get that” expression. The style is, obviously, “The Simpsons.” Ultimately, this short seems like a waste of space in such a limited amount of nominations.

That being said, “Paperman,” “Adam and Dog” and “Head Over Heels” deserve to be seen, by hopefully a wide audience. They are all works of immense humanness, which remind that we don’t need much to feel a whole lot. These short films are better than most big movies.